Robert Mugabe’s WHO Goodwill Ambassador Role Cancelled

Following widespread global public opposition on Sunday, Oct. 22, 2017, the World Health Organization (WHO) revoked the appointment of Robert Mugabe as a goodwill ambassador. Mugabe was named by the WHO head, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, to the largely ceremonial position on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017, during a meeting in Uruguay on chronic diseases attended by both him and Mugabe. Mugabe, 93, who has been President of Zimbabwe since 1987, had been praised for his commitment to public health by the WHO head. However, critics have pointed out that in the more recent years of his 37-year rule, the healthcare system in Zimbabwe collapsed, relating to the 2000 collapse of their economy. Mugabe has outlived the life expectancy in the country by three decades, and is known for travelling to other countries for healthcare purposes, while in Zimbabwe, staff often go without pay, and there are medicine shortages. The resulting criticism from human rights groups and member states alike led to the cancellation of the appointment.

The appointment of Robert Mugabe led to sharp criticism from around the globe. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated “Quite frankly, I thought it was a bad April Fool’s joke.” Furthermore, he said that “It is absolutely unacceptable, absolutely inconceivable that this individual would have a role as a goodwill ambassador.” Jeremy Farrar, global health specialist and director of the Wellcome Trust charity and the NCD alliance, stated “Dr. Tedros deserves all our support to ensure he and WHO build a global health movement that is inclusive and works to improve health for everyone.” In a governmental statement, Zimbabwean Foreign Minister Walter Muzembi said “So on the balance, it is wiser to let go, and help WHO focus on its mandate while we focus Zimbabwe on its membership obligations.”

Robert Mugabe being appointed to the position of WHO goodwill ambassador is very perplexing and tone-deaf, given his authoritarian rule of Zimbabwe and the numerous human rights violations and other issues that have occurred under his authority. The WHO and the United Nations (UN) are already controversial and this move further adds to the growing list of controversies. The fact that this was a planned move makes this decision more disappointing, as there was enough time to not only select someone not as controversial and problematic as Mugabe, but someone who would be highly capable, thus promoting the WHO and improving its standing globally. The decision to revoke this appointment is the correct decision, with the biography of Mugabe and the growing global criticism against the appointment, but this seems to be a response to a problem that should have been very easily avoided in the first place. The criticism itself was effective in bringing about a quick change in the WHO plans, and was effective because it places Mugabe’s record in the public eye.

In conclusion, this episode and its resolution is indicative of some of the issues and challenges within the WHO and the UN, whereby those who have committed numerous offenses and atrocities have been allowed to be elevated. The backlash against the appointment of Robert Mugabe as WHO goodwill ambassador demonstrates the power that strong criticism against a powerful body of authority can have, given the swift change that occurred soon after. It is imperative that the UN improve its internal practices and its critical thinking and judgement skills, so that such major missteps are far less likely to occur in the near to distant future.